February 26, 2013

The Foundations of Geek: My Story

The Wasted Lands blog has thrown down a blog gauntlet: Tell us YOUR formative experiences, and what brought you to the wonderful world of Geek culture!

I was born in Germany and moved to the US when I was 7 (1973). Unfortunately, I don’t remember much in the ways of specifics other than…
-Doing some hikes up some mountains. I have always had a grasp of the wilderness.
-Seeing the old-world architecture. While nothing specific has stuck with me, I have always loved the look of old architecture.
-Two languages. While my German is no longer functional, growing up in a bi-lingual house helped me understand other cultures.
-Struwwelpeter. This is an illustrated book for children wherein the stories are exaggerations to showcase proper behavior. Many of stories and pictures are fantastical, such as cats crying and putting out a burning girl and monsters that cut off the thumbs of children who suck their thumbs. Here is a link to an English version of the book.

At 9 years old (1975) we were assigned to read Watership Down. Before that point all my reading assignments were done to complete the school task. I devoured Watership Down and then realized that books could be for enjoyment. From there on, reading became a joy and something I still actively pursue. Lord of the Rings clinched my love for fantasy. Throughout high school my group of friends would devour books and then recommend them to each other; it was almost a challenge to see who could find the next awesome series.

Also at age 9 (1975) I went to see the Apple Dumpling Gang at a drive-in. It is a western comedy that had me falling in love with movies. Later in 1976 I first saw 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on The Wonderful World of Disney. It captured my science-fiction/fantasy interest and showed me how it could be done visually. While I love all movies, that was my first “science-fiction” film. I still go to see a movie usually once a week, with science-fiction/fantasy/action being my favorites.

Sometimes in the late-70’s I started reading comic books. I’m sure I had read some before (certainly I remembering watching the Super Friends TV series on Saturday mornings), but the X-Men (post-Giant Sized X-Men #1) really captured my imagination and got me to increase my comic book intake. Soon I was reading a large number of lines. Eventually the cost became too much and I had to stop; I haven’t picked up reading comic books since then but the pull is still there.

At age 13 (1979) I played my first D&D game. From there a group of us played all the time; at lunch, at each other’s house – we even skipped school one day to play all-day at the local park. We started with D&D and quickly moved onto other games such as Gamma World and Villains & Vigilantes. Since then I’ve played in many campaigns and with many rule systems. It’s hard to describe how much role-playing games have defined my life but that is when it all started.
A few things I remember are…using a bazooka to kill a rust monster trapped in a pit, making Wolverine as a Gamma World character, making copies of the rule books for my friends.

At age 14 (1980) I gained access to the computer at our high school. From there I became a computer geek, playing the games the computer had on it and then writing my own. I remember at lunch times going to the back room of the computer center, loading up the cassette player and playing the text-game Adventure trying to get a bit further than the day before.
This love of computer games reached another point in 1988 when I bought the Pools of Radiance computer game. I ended up going out and buying my first personal computer (a Tandy) just so I could play this game. Since then computers have been an integral part of my life.

At age 22 (1988) I was talked into going to a LARP event by a couple of my players in my ongoing D&D campaign (that ran 11 years of real-time). Before this I had vehemently avoided going to live-action events because I felt that was crossing a line from imagination to reality and the potential dangers therein (and I had heard rumors of SCA people sacrificing chickens to evil gods at their events).  However, I went (to a light/boffer game) and had a blast. I’ve been going ever since, averaging about 20 events a year).

At age 34 (2000) I was talked into playing Everquest by a couple of my D&D players. Again I was hesitant as I feared the gameplay would be sub-par (internet gaming was in its early stages) and the time consumption issues. I eventually tried it out and ended up playing. While I no longer play Everquest, I have played an on-line MMO ever since (World of Warcraft currently).

My geekness runs a wide gamut. Yes, I am a geek but I’m okay with that.

February 19, 2013

It's All the Player's Fault!

Campaigns that have a personal investment from the players are often the best. If the players’ characters have a strong incentive to pursue the end goal of a campaign, such as the removal of a major Big Bad Guy (BBG), the campaign will be stronger and longer lasting. Too often the drive of a campaign falls to “it’s the right thing to do” or “it’s an adventure and we’re adventurers”. Those only last so long. So how can you make it personal and give the players added incentive? Make it their fault. Make the entire goal of the campaign the direct result of something they did (or didn’t do).

Here are a few reasons why the campaign can be the fault of the player characters...

-They released the BBG from a prison. The BBG may have imprisoned in the past by heroes of old. They couldn’t kill him so they were forced to imprison him in a vault behind traps and monsters. And, of course, the PCs end up releasing the BBG in pursuit of the treasure that must surely be behind all those traps and monsters. Alternatives on this are that the BBG is slumbering/recovering in a special hide-a-away, regaining his strength “until some foolish mortals release me”.
I had an eleven year (real time) campaign kick of when the second adventure the party went exploring into a lost ruin. Defeating the various traps and monsters they finally released a being from a large orb…a powerful necromancer who then continued his plans to subjugate the world.

-They were unkind to the BBG. This can come is two forms. First is that the characters were rude/unkind/mean to someone. This someone could be anyone. Maybe they were rude to the wench at the tavern. Maybe they cheated a merchant out of 2 silver on a purchase. Maybe they used a derogatory term on someone. The point is the characters did something that another person could take offense with.
The second form is that the someone took offense with the characters through no fault of their own but they are still the focus of that person’s rage. Maybe the someone felt the characters were rude (even if they weren’t). Maybe the someone felt the characters were arrogant as they walked down the street. All you need for this is a time and place and an excuse.
The first option is the better of the two. While the second option will work for placing the ire of the BBG onto the player characters, it lacks some weight. If on the other hand, the characters have actually done something unkind to an NPC, even if it was slight, it gives more meaning to the upcoming confrontations.

-They could have prevented the rise of the BBG. Much the same way Spiderman could have stopped Uncle Ben from being killed, the player characters had a chance to stop the BBG from ever gaining power. Of course, to make this work for a long campaign, you have to make sure they fail if they actually attempt to stop the rise of the BBG.
The player character’s may have been in a race to recover a power artifact, but they lost the race and now the other party has it and are using it in their plans to dominate the world. Perhaps the PCs let a minor bad guy go (a minion who spun a story of a pathetic life) and this person rises to become the BBG.

-They provided the BBG with the means to become powerful. This is one of the oldest tricks in rpgs to date. The BBG is in the guise of a merchant/government official/scholar and tasks the PCs to recover an ancient artifact…at which point the BBG reveals that he duped the PCs, uses the ancient artifact to become all-powerful and goes off to begin his plans to conquer the world. While this is a bit clichéd it still works for our purposes. Few things will rise the ire of a PC faster than being duped.

A few of the options above are predicated on a lowly person becoming the BBG after the encounter with the PCs. However, once you have given an antagonist a reason to dislike the player characters, how do you give that person the power to do something about it? It is unlikely that a powerful being will be in a position where the player characters are able to be rude to them (though this could happen if the BBG is in disguise for some reason). The more likely route is to give the future BBG an item or situation that transforms the NPC from lowly-person-oppressed-by-the-player-characters into the BBG. Here are a few ideas for doing this…

-The person gains control of a very powerful being such as a genie or demon. This could be from the discovery of an innocuous item such as a lost bottle.

-The person is an unknown heir to a kingdom and is elevated after the player characters interacted with them. With their new position they will have access to armies, mighty persons, wealth and magic items of high power.

-The person is a scion to a bloodline of powerful sorcerers and their powers manifest later. They can quickly grow from lowly peon to a person wielding potent magic.

-A being (such as a lost angel) or group (such as a cult) is looking for guidance. Due to being in the right place at the right time, the future BBG is able to focus their direction into endeavors of domination…endeavors that the PCs will need to try and stop.

-And the old stand-by of the BBG finding a lost artifact that gives them unlimited power. Again, it’s clichéd but works in a pinch.

The point of all these suggestions is that you want the players to feel as if they were the cause of the problem the world is now facing and that they need to “make things right”. The best outcome is if they even feel as if they could have prevented the problem, but failed to do so. Personal angst is a power motivator.

February 15, 2013

5E Friday

-You can't get Dungeon #211 yet, but they have put up the table of contents for people to take a look at. Included are the small blurbs mentioning what each article is about. Of particular interest to me is a note from the editorial by Christopher Perkins..."We want adventures for all levels of play, but there’s a bigger supply of—and more demand for—heroic-tier action." To go along with his statement, the three adventures in the magazine cover level 2-4, level 1 and level 1-3; nothing over level 4.
This would be fine if a gaming group is just starting a campaign, but honestly, who is going to start a new 4E campaign with 5E out there. Most groups are continuing with their current 4E campaigns (like me) which have long ago progressed away from the heroic tier. Or the groups will be trying the 5E playtest. Or the groups have moved onto another system (my second gaming group is playing Savage Worlds). Or the group is running one-shots; which can be run at any level.
The need for low level adventures in 4E is virtually non-existent. Stating otherwise is a fallacy. 
I could see a use for low-level adventures if they started offering 5E conversion notes, but I'm not sure WotC wants to produce 5E test material for Dungeon until 5E becomes a "real" system. Any 5E adventure could easily become obsolete with the latest iteration of the playtest rules.

February 12, 2013

What to Do When the Player Leaves the Campaign

Any DM who has run a long, ongoing campaign has run into this situation before; what to do with the character when a player stops playing that character? Instead of feeling as if the campaign will soon be missing something, this is actually a wonderful opportunity to enhance your campaign. Here are a few things I’ve done when a character becomes playerless.

Kill the Character
I usually check with the player about this ahead of time, but most players really don’t care about their characters after they have given them up in their mind. Thus I have used this option to move the plotline along. By having the big bad guy kill off the character, it adds more incentive for the rest of the party to continue to pursue the BBG with more diligence. It makes it all more personal. And it shows that I’m not afraid to kill off their characters. And it shows how dangerous the BBG is. All together, there is a lot of reason to kill off the character.

NPC the Character: Enemy
Similar to the above, Kill the Character, this about making the character an npc enemy. In one of my games one of my players was tired of being the cleric (this was back in 2E days). He was tired of being nothing but a heal battery for everyone else. So he opted to make another character…which left his cleric available for my use. At the time the player characters were embroiled in a long campaign against a necromancer with armies of undead. So one night, the enemy had his vampires take the cleric and turn him into a vampire servant. Seeing as how the cleric was already high level, he became a powerful vampire and was soon a chief lieutenant of the enemy’s forces. Again, the player characters now had further incentive to fight the enemy, with the added bonus of having to fight their old friend along the way.

NPC the Character: Adventure Catalyst
This is the more “typical” thing to do with the character. The character retires into some sort of advisory capacity. Maybe they start working for a lord (or become a lord). Maybe they set up shop utilizing all their accumulated skills with goods that are useful to the party, such as information broker (sage). Somehow the NPC finds themselves in a position where they can easily aid the party.
The point is, this NPC is now a source of information and an adventure lead. The party is apt to trust this character more so than other NPCs which makes for an excellent way to move the party in whatever direction you want them to go. If they missed some crucial bit of plot information, this NPC has a ready excuse of why they are willing to hand over this info for free.

Disappear the Character
The unexplained disappearance of a party member can be a used as powerful motivator, especially if the scene of the disappearance implies it was not intentional. The missing character can be used as bait for other plots as the party pursues the “recovery” of their party member. Example: The party is following a lead as to where their missing companion has gone and they stumble upon a cult of demon worshipers that work for the Big Bad Guy.
You may know the character is never coming back into the campaign - The players may know the character is never coming back into the campaign - The characters do not know the character is forever gone.

Note that these techniques can be used any time a character is no longer being played by the player. The obvious loss of player control is when the player moves away or quits the campaign. However, sometimes the player simply wants to reroll with a different class. The point is that, whatever the reason, having a playerless character is a great chance to shake things up.

February 5, 2013

Fixed TNs and Sliding Scale TNs

TNs, or Target Numbers, have been with role-playing games since they were first conceived. Of course, back in the day they were called other things, such as AC/Armor Class and other similar nomenclatures. These days we will even disguise TNs as words instead of numbers, “if you have a Superb rating you will beat the Expert rating of your opponent and you will succeed”, but the effect is the same. The only real difference is what they are called. One thing that is seemingly different is the approach of fixed or sliding scale TNs.

Sliding scale TNs is what most people are familiar with; it is the system that was introduced in the first rpg. The TN changes depending on what type of armor and modifiers your target has. The better the armor the higher the TN (or lower – math was hard back in the ancient days). Add in such things as magical effects and ability modifiers and the TN was ever in flux.

4E took the concept of the sliding scale to its most blatant. Encounters and TNs are designed based on the level of the characters. Picking a lock as a level 1 character requires a much lower TN than picking a lock when the characters are at level 25. This was done intentionally to keep the characters challenged. This expanded outward and 4E had in place a system, in the form of a table based on character level (page 42), to scale each component of an encounter – AC, Fortitude Saves, damage dealt, damage threshold, etc. The table was a handy way to keep challenging the characters at all levels consistently and it did its job very well. Whether you wanted that level of scaled TNs and encounters is a matter of personal preference but 4E gave a very well done sliding scale, possibly the finest of any rpg to date.

The benefits of sliding scale TNs are…
-Encounters are easy to design as the scale required is all predetermined.
-Encounters will be a challenge regardless of character level or time played because the TNs are balanced.
-Players feel that their characters are gaining in power as they put out larger and larger numbers. It is a readily apparent character growth. “Look, I just did a new high number!”

Games with fixed TNs have a default TN that is set regardless of other factors. Savage Worlds is an excellent example of this. Savage Worlds has a default TN of 4. Whatever a character wants to do they must roll a 4 or more to succeed. Pick a lock with a Novice Rank character? The TN is 4. Pick a lock with a Legendary Rank character? The TN is 4.

The benefits of fixed TNs are…
-Encounters are easy to design as there is a baseline of expectation.
- Encounters will be a challenge regardless of character level or time played because these systems allow for limited inflation of character’s numbers.
- Players feel that their characters are gaining in power as they easily accomplish tasks that once were difficult. It is a readily apparent character growth. “Look, I just beat the TN by a new high number!”

As you can see, the benefits of fixed and sliding scale TNs are similar - just different ways of looking at the same thing. And that is because, ultimately, all TNs are sliding scale; the only difference is the direction of approach to the TN.

Even with a fixed scales TN, such as Savage Worlds, there are always modifiers that are applied to the TN and these modifiers scale with the level/rank of the characters. As character progress their modifiers increase in numeric value. Where before they gained a simple +1 to a die roll at 1st level for a particular ability/skill, they now gain an additional +2 from a couple of different feats or magic items(new gear) or level bonus or increased skill or a myriad of other character gains. In effect, this means the TN has decreased by the same amount. The powers the characters bring to a TN bring down its overall value.

Of course the reverse of this is also true. As the characters progress in power/ranks/level they inherently face tougher and tougher monsters – this is how a DM continues to challenge them. A campaign grows stale real fast if the characters continue to face the same adversaries time and time again. These higher level monsters come with higher defenses. Thus the modifiers the monsters bring to the table increase the TN. The powers the monsters bring to a TN bring up its overall value.

Ultimately this means that TNs stay roughly the same overall; the number needed on a die roll for a success remains approximately the same regardless of the level of the characters or adversaries. However, they are still changing and sliding based on the powers and levels of the player characters. So, which system works best; fixed TNs or sliding scale TNs? It really comes down to which feels best for the particular style/feel of the game.